Public Services

GDS: last week's waning star, next week's star attraction

Published 19 May 2017

While the Conservative manifesto makes no mention of GDS; a strengthened Tory administration appears to commit to a re-booted organisation to drive Whitehall's digital transformation


By Rob Anderson


Just when you thought you'd got the measure of Theresa May's administration and a dwindling commitment to GDS and all things digital, out pops a manifesto containing an entire chapter devoted to the subject. Having been produced by Minister for the Cabinet Office Ben Gummer, it probably shouldn't have been such a surprise but his performance in unequivocally backing GDS has been rather lacklustre. Nonetheless, a return to power will surely get him promoted to a bigger role.

If, as anticipated, the Conservatives do retain an overall parliamentary majority on June 8th, we can expect to see digital transformation reinvigorated, and strong backing for centrally co-ordinated digital support for departments. We hesitate to say it will be led by GDS in its current form, as the manifesto is notable in not explicitly naming the unit, but it certainly looks like a re-booted organisation will have the full weight of the cabinet behind it to drive ahead with change. Specifically, Verify is name-checked as the key single method to provide identity authentication across government services, both central and local and even potentially for non-governmental services like banking. We're sure there will have been a few hearts sinking in 100 Parliament Street and Telford upon reading that! Verify is the flagship, but common platforms of which it forms a part are also expressly noted, adding further mystery to the departure last week of the CTS Director Iain Patterson.

It's quite remarkable just how prominent the sections on data and digital are, and notably the very clear line on governance, ethics and privacy. ICO will continue to be kept busy, and moreover we'll expect increasing opportunity for the UK's blossoming RegTech industry. A new data protection law is proposed, cunningly positioned to win tabloid favour by failing to mention the words "EU GDPR" - which is quite probably what is. This will be backed up by a new 'expert' body, the Data Use and Ethics Commission to oversee processes and practices. Meanwhile cyber security is covered with a restated commitment to a £1.9m investment and a requirement that "all public services follow the most up to date cyber security techniques appropriate" which was surely shoe-horned in at the last minute after last week's chaos wrought by the WannaCry worm.

It's encouraging that data gets increased prominence again having seemingly been on the back-burner since the Government Transformation Strategy launch, no doubt now buoyed by the data sharing legislation enabled with the assent of the Digital Economy Act. Of particular note is the plan to make Britain the world leader in 'digital land' through combining parts of Land Registry, Ordnance Survey, the Valuation Office Agency, Hydrographic Office and Geological Survey. In doing so, the largest repository of open land data in the world will be created, which will surely cheer the vociferous open data lobby.

Again it illustrates the move away from laissez faire Cameron-style conservatism towards May's new regulatory conservatism, where regulation does not stifle business but helps to "attract the right businesses" to the UK, aiming to make Britain "the global centre for data use and research".

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